South Africa has a rich, diverse and unique cultural heritage, and for entrepreneurs who can tap into it, the world is theirs for the taking. Thobekile Mkhize (32) is one such entrepreneur. In 2013, she established Mabotho, which sells a range of handcrafted handbags made from the skin of African cattle. “I chose to make bags because a handbag says a lot about a woman’s style and where she comes from,” says Mkhize. “I wanted to create bags that represent my heritage and give women a stylish accessory through which they can represent themselves authentically.
“The name Mabotho comes from my dad’s nickname ‘Mabo’, from his name, S’bongiseni and ‘tho’ from Thobekile,” says Mkhize. “My dad was an entrepreneur, and he passed away in 1999. The company is my way of honouring him.”
The handbags were a hobby at first, but Mkhize’s breakthrough came when she exhibited her line in 2016 at the Essence Festival in Durban, an annual event hosted by American women’s magazine Essence. Her bags were a hit and her company was born.
“People truly appreciate the style of my handbags. I mix a lot of Nguni and plain leather creatively. For instance, instead of using a plain springbok hide, we dye it and put dots on it to make it look like leopard skin. We like to put a twist on our designs, which speak to different types of women. We’re going to be creating our own artwork and printing it on the leather. That’s something different that people don’t usually do, but it’s going to be inspired by the women in our environment.”
Mkhize exhibited at the Essence Festival again in September 2017, and this time she was featured in the highlights booklet given to visitors.
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She was awarded the Best Youth-Owned Business award at the SMME Excellence Awards. Mkhize went on to join the KZN Fashion Council, through which she was selected to be one of 15 designers to exhibit at the Pure London 2018 trade show taking place this month, where she hopes to establish supply relationships with UK retailers.
“Being raised in a well-balanced home with strong academic and religious values has helped me through the challenges of starting and running a successful business,” she says. “With no formal business training, I’m learning every day from the mentors I have in my life. I’ve learnt that it’s best to surround yourself with people who share your vision.”